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Keith Strudler: A Terrible Hire

In case it was unclear, football in the state of Texas is a big deal. Still, despite the narrative of decreasing high school football rosters and more kids playing soccer, or lacrosse. Beyond the national conversation about concussions and CTE. In spite of all that, in Texas, and miles of terrain across the American South, football still reigns supreme, especially on warm Friday nights and the summery days that lead up to them.

Quite possibly, no one is more deeply engrained in Texas football culture than Art Briles, the former head football coach at Baylor University, amongst other places. Briles was born and raised on Texas football, playing high school ball in rural Texas for his father, and later going on to play college ball in the state before beginning a highly successful career as a high school coach, including a long run at Stephenville, which I know probably means absolutely nothing to most everyone listening right now. But just know that the TV show version of Friday Night Lights minus all the hyperbolic life drama – well, that was Art Briles.

Of course, Briles is best known not for coaching at Stephenville High School, or the University of Houston or even Baylor, where he took a moribund football program to the brink of a college football playoff berth. Unfortunately, he’s better known for how he left Baylor – not for a better offer, but in disgrace amidst a university scandal where Briles was implicated in helping to cover-up multiple sexual assault cases involving his football players. Briles was fired, along with university president Ken Starr – yes, that Ken Starr, and some of Briles’ former athletes have gone to prison. Briles also tried to sue Baylor for libel, a suit he dropped when reports went public about just how lawless the football program seemed to be under his watching, including multiple gang rapes by his athletes and arranging sex for prospective athletes. That was the effective end of Art Briles’ coaching career in Texas – really, anywhere, except coaching a football club in Florence, Italy. That is, until now, when Mt. Vernon High School in northeastern Texas – school population of under 500 – hired Briles as its head football coach. According to Mt. Vernon ISD Superintendent Jason McCullough, Briles comes with high recommendations from past employers, which, I suppose likely does not include the Title IX office at Baylor. He also noted that Briles could use his past experiences to teach young people how to deal with adversity and develop character.

Not surprisingly, Briles’ hire created something of an avalanche of criticism, largely focused on the hypocrisy of hiring someone accused of creating a deviant, criminal culture to mentor high school students. Especially in the midst of a national #MeToo moment, Mt. Vernon seems not simply out of touch, but willfully indignant. For anyone who viewed Art Briles as the poster child of everything that can be wrong in a violent, hegemonic, male sports culture, hiring him to lead adolescent men into battle is nothing less than a kick in the head.

Now, I won’t waste a lot of time analyzing the obvious. No high school football team should hire Art Briles to do anything involving high school students. There are more than enough talented football minds to lead a team without dipping into that cesspool. And whether or not Briles reforms and does a good job teaching values and ethics is beyond the point. It’s that when you hire Art Briles as the leader of what’s assuredly the prized commodity of your small town, you’re sending the message that the violent attacks on women that Briles ignored simply aren’t that big a deal. That is why Art Briles shouldn’t be the next football coach at Mt. Vernon or anywhere for that matter.

Which brings us to the heart of the issue. Coaching sports is way more than simply x’s and o’s and wins and losses. I say this as someone who was a college athlete who looked up to my coaches and still holds the title Coach in the same regard that most do Priest or Rabbi. Someone who hopes my kids’ coaches are better people than they are athletic strategists. Coaches have a remarkable responsibility and opportunity. See, for a lot of people, coaches might be only people they actually listen to implicitly. When a coach says run through a wall, they run through a wall. That’s not the same as say, a math teacher, at least unless someone really, really loves calculus.

So when you hire a football coach in Texas, you’re not simply hiring someone who can teach kids to play football. You’re hiring someone who can teach kids how live. Art Briles failed miserably in that part of the job. And that’s why his hire is such a mistake.

Now, obviously, this gets at a much deeper issue around coaching hires and fires, and the obscene prioritization placed on winning. That’s especially true in Texas, where football is still a really big deal.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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